Dust bowl days

Farm Forum

I have little memory of our Dakota dust bowl and depression days, save for a few flashbacks from early childhood, like the damp bed sheets my mother tacked up at night over our bedroom windows to catch and filter out the dust that the dry wind was escorting.

I remember the long line at the Jerauld County Courthouse where my mother and I waited for our family’s turn to receive a brown paper sack full of free apples that was a part of the government’s efforts to insure apple growers had a market for their produce, and we in Wessington Springs and elsewhere had food on the table.

Those Dust Bowl/Depression apples weren’t your lush, rosy red apples of today. They were old, dry, shriveled up and soft. Still, they were apples and they were nourishing.

I also have a dim memory of our family’s auto trip to Chamberlain on a hot Sunday afternoon late in the 1930s as the dust was filtering back to earth and allowing crops to at last tie the dirt down firm from the wind.

That Chamberlain crossing was covered with what must have been millions if not billions of grasshoppers. They were gnawing at the bridge paint, and resting as they paused on their flights from one side of the Missouri River to the other.

The bridge deck was awash with their remains that had been crushed by the tires of passing vehicles. It was a slippery crossing.

Eastern South Dakota residents got a taste of what was coming when one of the worst dust storms in years visited in late April and early May of 1928.

Officials estimated the dust cloud that lingered in the area for four days extended a mile and a half in the air.

The mother of all dust storms arrived in South Dakota on Saturday, April 21 1934. In that one, the sun was obstructed. Streetlights were turned on, as were lights in businesses and homes.

In Brookings, the storm problems were exacerbated because a Young Citizen League meeting was being, as well as a high school track meet, so there were many young people in town.

The local newspaper reported that the telephone company switchboard lit up in a blaze of lights and the regular operators could not keep up with the unusual number of telephone calls being made.

The storm lasted about 90 minutes. After it passed over, winds continued to agitate fine dust until Sunday morning.

“Housewives have grown weary of dust,” the paper reported. “Some have resigned themselves to the situation and take it philosophically, waiting for rain. Others continue to slave, sweeping and cleaning up.”

In April and May of 1934, there were 35 dust blizzards in South Dakota. Pastures for cattle evaporated along with South Dakota’s lakes.

The DeSmet community sponsored a Thistle Day in recognition of the Russian thistle that thrived in the dry dust. A largest thistle contest was held and George Bierman of Mellette won first place with a thistle that was 22 feet in circumference.

This little ditty was popular with children: “They choke you and blind you, they blacken your face; Dust storms are an insult to the civilized race.”

Write to the author at cfcecil@swiftel.net.